Tattoos: think before you ink

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If you turn on the TV, go to the beach, to the gym or the grocery store, there is a high chance that you will walk past someone with a tattoo. They have become so common that we hardly even notice them anymore. In fact, more than 30% of the U.S. population has at least one tattoo. But some styles of tattooing have a strong cultural history, which has led to conversations on who has the right to get culturally specific tattoos. 

Misconceptions of cultural tattoos

cultural appropriation, n:The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” (Lexico, 2020)

Cultural appropriation becomes a problem when people pick aspects of foreign cultures and make a superficial use of them, while the people from those cultures suffer from ostracization. The use of foreign cultural indicators is praised when adopted by the dominant culture and ridiculed when visible on the very people they belong to. 

Nanaia Mahuta, New Zealand’s first female MP in New Zealand to wear a traditional Māori chin tattoo  ©Labour.org.nz

As recently as November 2020, Nanaia Mahuta, New Zealand’s first female MP in New Zealand to have a traditional Māori chin tattoo, was criticized by author Olivia Pierson who considered that “facial tattoos are not exactly a polished civilised presentation for a foreign diplomat in the 21st century,” even specifying that “especially on a female diplomat” it is “the height of ugly.” But in Māori culture, female face tattoos symbolize the link with their ancestry and are considered sacred. Even if Pierson’s remark is particularly insulting, misinterpreting visual cultural markers is not that unusual. 

In the age of identity politics and cultural appropriation, how can you make sure you are making an informed choice when getting a tattoo? To fully understand the intricacies of cultural tattoos, we need to take a look at the long history of tattooing. 

Tattooing: a practice as old as writing

The practice of tattooing is rooted in a long and diverse history that actually goes back thousands of years. There is proof of permanent marks made on the body from all over the world, from the Americas to the Pacific Islands, to China. The oldest tattooed body known to date is more than 5000 years old! Found in the Italian Alps, Ötzi the Iceman was covered with 61 tattoos.

Some of Ötzi the Iceman’s tattoos are believed to have been made to fulfil therapeutic purposes similar to acupuncture ©Marco Samadelli via The Atlantic

Even if it is hard to determine the nature or the purpose behind those 5000 year old tattoos, throughout history people found various reasons to permanently ink their skin. It could be to show that they belonged to a certain group of people, to display their personal achievements, to give information about their status in a community, or to symbolize strength as they were able to face the pain of getting tattooed. For centuries, tattoos were made with thorns or bones and ink coming from plants or soot or other natural elements. The arrival of the electrical tattoo machine at the end of the 19th century made the practice much easier. Combined with the growing diversification of what could be seen in the media, which progressively included more and more tattooed people, the practice of tattooing became increasingly popular. 

Tattoos became increasingly common on screen over the years: 

Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, 1955. Steve McQueen in Papillon, 1973. Wesley Snipes in Blade, 1998. Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 2011. Jason Momoa in Justice League, 2017.

Yet many religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam consider the act of tattooing as a desecration of the body. Tattoos have long been – and sometimes still are – associated with criminals, lower class citizens or rebellious spirits. But nowadays, with tattoos in magazines, in fashion, but also on singers, actors and even elected officials, tattoos are no longer unusual or sacrilegious, especially for younger generations. 

Justin Trudeau, Canada’s Prime minister, with his shoulder tattoo ©Broadimage/REX/Shutterstock/CP via Macleans.

With the internet and social media such as Pinterest or Instagram, millions of tattoo designs are just a click away.

On Instagram, typing #tattoo will return over 147 millions posts ©Instagram. 

But getting a tattoo in a certain style is not as innocuous as you may think. Some tattoo styles carry a strong historic and cultural meaning. Two popular yet culturally significant tattoo styles are traditional Japanese tattoos and Pacific Islander style tattoos. 

What is so culturally significant about Japanese and Pacific Islander tattoos?

Pacific Islander and Japanese tattoos are becoming increasingly popular, but do you really know the history behind them?   

The origin of the word “tattoo” actually comes from the Tahitian term “tatau”. British captain James Cook, brought the term back to Europe in 1769, when returning from his second trip to Tahiti. 

In the Pacific Islands, tattoos were used to express individuality, genealogy, life history, accomplishments and social status in each island. Designs were generally quite simple and included no written language. The recurring patterns are geometric, spirals or animal footprints and are tattooed across the lower back and legs. The head is considered to be the most sacred part of the body for the Māori so that facial tattoos are common for people of high social status. 

Photograph of Tawhiao, second King of the Māori (1822 – 1894). The photo was taken in the 1880s by an unknown photographer. Example of Samoa tattoos prints ©explained on Netflix

Example of Samoa tattoos prints ©explained on Netflix

While the pain of getting a tattoo is now bearable, the traditional tattooing process was really painful. To draw the tattoos, chisels were made from shark teeth, sharpened bone or sharp stones attached to a wooden handle. The chisel was then put into a jar of pigment and inserted into the skin by striking the end with a mallet.  

Instruments for traditional Pacific Island tattoos: hāhau (tapping stick), moli (tattoo tool), and apu paʻu (ink bowl) ©World history encyclopedia

In Japan, tattoos served a different purpose. They were traditionally used as a criminal punishment for centuries, usually on the arms or face. 

Japanese criminals with tattoos on their forehead in order to identify them © iromegane

Penal tattooing died out by the end of the 17th century, likely because of the rise of decorative tattooing, which criminals would use to cover their marks. Though penal tattoos used to be a simple tattoo, by the mid-1800s they often covered the entire back of the body, using only one motif. This style is now known as Japanese traditional or Irezumi. Irezumi initially spread to people who wanted to be perceived as dangerous. 

 Traditional Japan tattoo representing Hannya (Japanese demon)  made by ©outcast_tattooer

   Tattoos are today legal in Japan and are increasingly accepted. However, for a part of the population, they are still largely associated with criminality and gangs such as the Japanese mafia, the Yakuza. They are still banned from certain places like public pools, onsen (bath houses)  and  gyms if you cannot hide your tattoos. But the fact that tattoos remain controversial in Japan did not prevent the country’s traditional style from spreading all around the world.

Tribals and red dragons: why you see them everywhere 

Why did Japanese and Pacific Islands tattoos gain so much popularity? How can we explain such a trend? The reason is actually simple: it is one of the effects of globalization. Travel between countries has increased and the art of tattooing has significantly expanded. Traditional tattoo artists have exported their art internationally, by setting up their tattoo shops in other countries, or through the organization of tattoo exhibitions and conventions. Tourism is also a key factor. Indeed, when people go on vacation in a foreign country, they often like to keep a memory of their trip inscribed in their skin. 

Pop culture has also had an impact in the popularization of traditional tattoos. Tribal tattoos reached their peak in the nineties when people chose these designs for their aesthetic beauty, but also because their favorite celebrities wore them. Luca, a 32-year-old Italian man fond of gaming and gym, said he got a tribal tattoo inspired by Dwayne Johnson: “I inked myself for the beauty of the tattoo itself and because it fits perfectly with my body shapes (…) I wanted to take on my body the Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson tattoo,” he explained in an interview. 

On the left: Dwayne Johnson at the gym in January 2021. ©TheRock via Instagram

On the right: Luca, freshly tattooed. 

Japanese tattoos are representative of the popularization of Asian art in the Western world. Designs of Asian deities, dragons and koi fish became fashionable as they evoke a calm state of mind, as opposed to the ever-changing world we live in. Such patterns are often appropriated by Westerners in other fields, such as fashion or decoration.

Japanese dragon and koi fish patterns via ©Pinterest 

In the end, is it okay to get a cultural tattoo? 

In Pacific Islander and Japanese cultures, a tattoo is not just a form of art or a fashion statement. Its history makes it much more than that. For many tattoo artists, getting a tattoo from a specific culture is not a problem as long as it is done in a culturally appreciative way. For Dan, who is a tattoo artist specialized in Japanese style tattoos based in the UK, research and explanation is essential in creating a piece that is “respectful” and “within the guidelines set by the culture.” Some Māori tattoo artists do not have an issue with non-Māori people tattooing or getting tattooed Māori style designs as they are simply not perceived as traditional ta-moko (tattoos for Māori people by Māori people), but as kirituhi (Māori-style tattoo created or made for a non-māori person). Other tattoo artists, like Heleena, owner and tattoo artist of Francis Street Tattoo (Things and Ink, 2020), think that to avoid issues of cultural appropriation, one should go to culturally appropriate artists to get a tattoo, so that you’re giving back to the community and to the people that are keeping the culture alive.

The best way to find culturally appropriate artists is doing online research and talking to local tattoo parlors and artists. However, Tattoo SEO is also a useful tool for finding tattoo artists who do specific designs, including cultural tattoos: https://www.tattooseo.com/polynesian-tattoo-artists/

Educational resources on cultural tattoos are readily available online. Check out Zealantattoo.co for a thorough guide on both Japanese and Māori tattoos: 

By Alexia L, Anne-Claire L, Zoya P and Elina K.

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